There are at least 25,000 species of orchids on Earth, and 8% of all flowering plants are orchids, but some of them are threatened with extinction and have been dubbed the "pandas of the plant world." Zhang Shibao, a researcher from Kunming Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has paid special attention to an endangered strain called paphiopedilum after spending over two decades researching the whole orchid family.
"After being discovered in the 1980s on a few mountainsides along the Nujiang River in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, it became a critically endangered plant due to its ornamental value among flower and plant lovers and collectors," Zhang said. He now checks the growth of orchid seedlings every day, like they are his own kids.
According to Zhang, orchids are very sensitive to environmental changes and human activities. "Habitat destruction and large-scale digging have harmed these plants in the wild," he said.
When the rare wild paphiopedilum was discovered in the 1970s, it caused a sensation in the international horticultural community and demand was strong in the international market due to its ornamental and cultural value.
"People went crazy for its color, flower shape, and fragrance, not just in China, but also in Europe," he recalled. "These collectors came to China and Southeast Asia for them, as they also had a long tradition of cultivating orchids. At the peak time in the 1980s, a paphiopedilum plant could sell for $8,000."
"We cross-fertilized wild plants to breed new paphiopedilum varieties with a wider range of colors, which have more beautiful flowers than the wild ones," he noted. "Different orchids have different genetic traits. We can aggregate good genes to create new traits or new varieties through hybridization and other means. In fact, we are now able to realize large-scale artificial breeding for 20 varieties."
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